Juliana Wathen offers up, with appropriate choices of "liberation" songs, a one-woman show that charts the progress of a plus-size woman into acceptance, poise, confidence and charm.
A comma can make all the difference in the world, so please note that the protagonist is "mad fat," a British-ism for extremely fat, not "mad, fat" as in "angry." Juliana is anything but angry, as she has accepted that our world is oriented toward images of fitness models, and that our perception of beauty is colored by it, but she is determined not to be confined by it. She is "out, and proud," but Juliana's cabaret act is mainstream entertainment, not niche, for her style, wisdom and humor transcend gender and sex.
Juliana reminded me of the chanteuse Barbara Cook, and has some of Cook's keen phrasing, sensitivity to the meaning of a lyric, and acting ability. I refer to Juliana by her first name, as the opening night January 4 was her birthday, the evening had elements of a party and to call her "Ms. Wathen" sounds strangely stilted for such a festive occasion. Her voice serves her well, as it is not only clear but can soar when needed and segue into sweetness -- but there's not much sweetness, as the evening is a bittersweet saga, a chronicle told in song sometimes, but mostly in words, of how Juliana came to accept herself as beautiful. In this cabaret act, the songs are the bridges and the anecdotes are the meat.
Juliana has elements of a motivational speaker, of a revivalist (yes, there were cries of "Amen" from the audience), but essentially she is a truth-teller, and that is her strength. She also tells stories better than Spalding Gray did, and hers are more interesting. An occasional platitude is unavoidable in a motivational speaker, but Juliana salvages them by adding repartee, such as "Life is a gift, so put a (expletive deleted) bow on it!" Her rendition of the platinum hit "You Are Not Alone," popularized by Michael Jackson, is poignant and compelling, and the almost-obligatory finale of "I Am What I Am" from La Cage aux Folles has the requisite power and authority.
I'm glad I was able to help celebrate her birthday, but the celebratory air did mar the performance itself. The audience was populated largely by women, many of whom (if not most) were fans, nay, zealots, nay, worshipers -- all to the good, so far. The "Amens" were fine, and singing along with the end of a song was palatable, but interrupting the performance from the audience to suggest a song or a story detracts seriously from enjoyment -- even if two audience members hadn't stooped to bickering aloud over competing suggestions. The evening threatened to deteriorate from a polished performance into a hen party, with elements of television's The View threatening to emerge. The 4th wall wasn't just broken -- it was assaulted, and the authority of a truth-teller seriously undermined by some of the interactive bits -- I won't cite them, as I hope they were unique to this birthday, opening event, and that the worst won't reappear. The writing is fine, sensitive and amusing, and the performer gifted -- too gifted not to keep alive the professionalism that is a hallmark of quality.
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Kenneth Clayborne provided keyboard accompaniment with style and verve, and palm plants, textured red curtains and some attractive props transformed the venue's usual spartan look into a warm, inviting setting. I was quite taken by Juliana Wathen, and by the time the 75-minute show had ended, I was not only persuaded of her beauty, but of her "hotness" as well.
A one-woman show mixes some popular, liberation-themed songs with personal anecdotes to create a compelling story of how one woman progressed past a variety of prejudices to enter a world of beauty and love.
Name in Lights...Diary of a "Mad Fat" Woman, A Night of Cabaret with Juliana Wathen is presented by Beautiful Girl Productions, and continues through January 14 at Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. For information or reservations, call 832-889-7837 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.